Should works of art be bought and sold like potatoes? Or are they, like the best presents, items on which no real price can be placed?by Margaret Atwood / December 11, 2019 / Leave a comment
Gifts pass from hand to hand: they endure through such transmission, as every time a gift is given it is enlivened and regenerated through the new spiritual life it engenders both in the giver and in the receiver.
And so it is with Lewis Hyde’s classic study of gift-giving and its relationship to art. The Gift moves like an underground current among artists of all kinds, through word of mouth and bestowal. It is the one book I recommend without fail to aspiring writers and painters and musicians, for it is not a how-to book—there are many of these—but a book about the core nature of what it is that artists do, and also about the relation of these activities to our overwhelmingly commercial society. If you want to write, paint, sing, compose, act or make films, read The Gift. It will help to keep you sane.
I doubt that Hyde knew while he was writing it that he was composing such an essential work. Perhaps he felt he was merely exploring a subject of interest to him—in its short form, why poets in our society are seldom rich—and enjoying the many tributaries he was uncovering through this exploration without realising that he had hit on a wellspring. When asked by his original editor who his presumed audience was, he couldn’t really pinpoint it, but settled for “poets.” “That’s not what most editors want to hear,” as he says in his foreword to the 2006 edition. “Many prefer ‘dog owners seeking news of the dead.’” As he then tells us, “the happy fact is that The Gift has managed to find an audience beyond the community of poets.” This is an understatement of some vastness.
I first encountered both Hyde and The Gift in the summer of 1984. I was in the midst of writing The Handmaid’s Tale, begun in the spring in that combination of besieged city and consumer showcase that was West Berlin at the time, and where the 20th-century clash between communitarianism gone wrong and Mammon-worship gone wild was most starkly in evidence. But now it was July, and I was in Port Townsend, Washington, at a summer school for writers of the kind that were then multiplying. In that secluded area, all was bucolic.